In September 2010, Saudi Arabia marked the anniversary of the 1962 Republican Revolution in Yemen by funding lavish parties in the country’s capital. Large numbers of Yemenis thronged the Saudi Arabian embassy in Sana’a to collect the cash dispensed to commemorate this momentous occasion. Such a degree of profligateness in Saudi foreign policy is hardly new, but the pretence of solidarity demonstrated in their celebration of the Republican Revolution is particularly perplexing—even by Saudi standards of prevarication.
On 26 September 1962, a small group of army officers in North Yemen ended the thousand-year-old Imamate overnight and established the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR). The Republican Revolution, supported by Nasserite Egypt, sparked a number of significant internal upheavals in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi monarchy survived those initial internal threats, and devoted itself to a rearguard counterrevolution, pitting its Yemeni royalists against the Egyptian-backed republicans in a brutal eight-year long proxy war. By 1970, the Saudi-supported counterrevolution had for the most part succeeded in “de-revolutionizing” the Republic and the Saudi monarchy has celebrated ever since.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia may mock history in its celebration of the 1962 revolution, but fifty years later North Africa’s shadow has once again stretched into Yemen. The Arab uprisings that led to the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt in 2011, spurred the nascent Yemeni protest movement and led, eventually, to the removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Comparisons have frequently been drawn between the Arab uprisings and the revolutions in France in 1789, Europe in 1848, Prague Spring 1968, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1989, and, on a few occasions, to the Arab revolt and the Egyptian Nasserite revolution in 1952. The 1962 Republican Revolution in North Yemen, however, has been largely overlooked. Much like the Yemeni uprising of 2011, the Republican Revolution, in the words of Gamal Abdul Nasser, “exploded in one of the parts of the Arab world where it was least expected.” Important and underexplored parallels exist between the Republican Revolution of 1962 in North Yemen and the Arab uprisings, especially in the Yemeni case in 2011.
Before the 1962 revolution, North Yemen under Imamate rule represented the ideal type of Saudi-inspired stability. Lachrymose North Yemen was a convenient buffer zone between a verbose and increasingly gluttonous Saudi Arabia and a declining British presence in Aden. The Saudi-sponsored Hamid al-Din Imamate ran the country on the basis of personal rule and condemned its population to an impoverished serfdom-based system. The Imamate shut off the outside world from its citizens and banned new technologies such as radios.
North Yemenis were not quiescent to the oppressive rule of the al-Din Imamate. Political dissidents in 1938, for example, smuggled copies of al-Kawakibi’s The Nature of Oppression into the Imamate and plans to replace the Imamate formed. The Free Yemeni Movement, supported by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, produced a Sacred National Charter that envisaged a reformed constitutional Imamate. The Free Yemeni Movement’s push for reform , resulted in the assassination of Imam Yahya in 1948, but the planned coup failed. The Free Yemeni Movement had not communicated its ideas to the broader populous and the murder of Yahya was not supported. As Paul Dresch argued: “There was no general language yet in which a popular uprising could be encouraged.” Fourteen years later the right words emerged.
Egypt’s 1952 Revolution rippled across to the sequestered Imamate. Despite the isolation from the outside world imposed by the Imamate, the advent of the transistor radio resulted in the connection of urbanites and those in rural areas to regional and national political currents. The rise of Arab Nationalism and invention of the handheld transistor radio proved a fatal combination. Broadcasting from Nasserite Cairo, The Voice of the Arabs spread the idea that getting rid of the Imamate and establishing a republic instead was the solution to Yemen’s multiple problems, including the removal of the British from Aden.
The transformation of the communication environment in the Arab world is often viewed to have begun in the late 1990s, with the launch of satellite television and Al-Jazeera. The Republican Revolution of 1962 illustrated the pivotal role that radio played in unifying the Yemeni, and Arab, political space. Recent commentary has emphasized the role of social media, satellite television, and telecommunications in precipitating the uprisings. Indeed, a change in the information environment was a central vector in the 2011 Yemeni uprising.
However, in the emphasis on technological change and regional political currents, it is important, as in all the current uprisings, to not obfuscate indigenous political agitation and imagination. The Republican Revolution could not have received popular support without the groundwork of such groups as the Free Yemeni Movement in the 1930s. Likewise, the Yemeni uprising could not have coalesced around Saleh’s nepotism without the long resistance by, among others, Southerners, Houthis and Yemeni youth. It is these popular political frameworks of change that are the phenomena and the regional and technological transformation the epiphenomena.
On 26 September 1962, Sana’a radio announced the death of Imam al-Badr and the news went viral. A group of Nasserite-backed North Yemeni army officers had directed tanks into Sana’a and shelled the offices of al-Badr. The radio, and its wily manipulation by the revolutionaries, shaped the attendant political outcome, namely that of the removal of al-Badr and the end of the Imamate. The report of al-Badr’s death was premature, but—unlike his grandfather—the announcement was welcomed by the populous. He had in fact escaped from the building and fled to the tribes in the north. Al-Badr’s bodyguard, Abduallah as-Sallal, took power and the Imamate was renamed the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR).
The Hamid al-Din dynasty met a remarkably similar end to that of Saleh’s thirty-three years at the helm. On 3 June 2011, a bomb exploded in the presidential mosque. Saleh’s opponents tried to repeat the trick of the 1962 revolutionaries and announced his premature end. President Ali Abdullah Saleh was badly wounded. Shrapnel had pierced his chest and he suffered serious burns. Not to be out-exaggerated, Saleh’s alive but raspy voice announced in an audio address to state television that he was “well and in good health.” Saleh was forced to leave Yemen for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, and a few months later, to the United States.
Al-Badr and Saleh both bounced back from their reported deaths to haunt Yemen, with Saudi Arabian and US acquiescence. In the case of al-Badr, he formed a Saudi-supported militarized royalist campaign, backed by northern tribes, against the Nasserite assisted republicans. The geopolitical cleavage between the United States and the Soviet Union, manifested regionally between the Arab monarchies and Arab nationalists, produced a brutal proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Saleh’s re-emergence in Yemen occurred despite the warnings that his return could spark civil war. Indeed as the new post-Saleh government gradually removes his family members from positions of power and in particular the military, Saleh threatens chaos. Given the Obama administration’s stability-focused policy framework, it is not apparent why Saleh was permitted to return to Yemen from his luxurious pad(s) in the United States in February 2012.
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In both the Republican Revolution and the Arab uprisings, US policy vacillated. In 1962, official US recognition of the Yemen Arab Republic was swiftly granted, but the initial support soon transitioned into support for the Saudi-led counter-revolution. In 1965, in response to the republican revolutionary threat, a joint US-British deal with Saudi Arabia marked the largest military export deal at the time. In a striking parallel, the current Arab uprisings also resulted in a record arms deal: in 2010, the United States and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement worth sixty billion dollars.
The initial US reaction to the Republican Revolution, however, was calculated to distance itself from the British and Saudi escalation of the conflict. A prescient early US assessment claimed that both the British and the Saudis were not upholding their agreement to not arm the royalists and noted that Saudi gold and arms kept the “tribal pot bubbling.” Indeed, the British covert arming of Saudi Arabia in this period set the precedent of privatized military warfare. Colonel David Stirling—the prototype for later characters such as Erik Prince (founder of Blackwater)—established a private mercenary force and was pivotal in sealing arms deals for British arms manufactures, such as, BAE Systems.
Continued pressure by the United States led to a ceasefire in the conflict and a United Nations (UN) Yemeni Observer Mission was deployed. The weak UN mission soon collapsed and the battle between Yemeni royalists and republicans was enveloped within the brutal proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Egypt. While Saudi Arabia poured large amounts of money and provided weapons to al-Badr and his royalist campaign, the Egyptian army stationed sixty thousand troops in Yemen to support the YAR. Military planners in Cairo had dreamt of a presence on the Arabian Peninsula. The military and political hubris in support of the YAR, however, precipitated the end of Nasser.
Fear of the communist threat turned US policy toward Saudi Arabia and Britain. In March 1963, Egyptian bombing of royalist positions in Saudi Arabia and internal dissent in the Saudi military resulted in Operation Hard Surface that sent US planes and warships to support the Saudi monarchy. Meanwhile, the symmetrical proxy war frayed as it filtered down to the actual site of violence: North Yemen. Yemenis picked their global and regional supporters predominantly on the basis of vacillating local antagonisms; the result was a directionless slaughter.
In 1967, after Israel defeated Egypt and ended the Nasserite era, Egypt withdrew its support from Yemen. Saudi Arabia had won the war against Nasser. Royalists circled the now Nasserite-less Republicans in Sana’a, but were unable to recapture the capital. Saudi Arabia, victorious against Nasser, no longer needed al-Badr and sought the swiftest resolution to the conflict in Yemen. Subsequently, the Saudi monarchy dropped any ideological pretence it had for al-Badr and facilitated a Republican victory, sent al-Badr into exile, and imposed “stability” on the YAR. The Saudi system of “stability” for the YAR— which is on going—established a policy that pumped large quantities of cash through a complex network of overt and covert payments to prominent Yemeni tribal sheikhs, politicians, religious leaders, and army officials. It is a policy that both supports and undermines the state, just as it both supports and undermines the tribal system. Yemenis continue to pay for Saudi Arabia’s policy in Yemen through personalized rule, malfunctioning state institutions, and a violent local political scene. The Houthi rebellion in the north, coupled with the secessionist movement and the al-Qaeda insurgencies in the south, are rooted in the Saudi policy of “stability.”
The defeat of Nasser enabled Saudi Arabia to enforce policies of “stability” throughout the region. US policy has continued to lead from behind this Saudi Arabian framework, as has been articulated through the US response to the Arab uprisings. The Obama administration has simultaneously supported Saudi Arabia’s clunking fist in the Arab uprisings and struggled to maintain a visual distance from it. In the Yemeni uprising this meant that the Obama administration condemned the killing of pro-democracy protestors by Saleh’s government verbally. Yet, no meaningful consequences for these deaths or, indeed, a shift in support for the Saleh regime occurred. The United States only abandoned Saleh once the Saudis decided he was no longer able to enforce “stability” on Yemen.
The threat, or the semblance of a threat, in the form of al-Qaeda and Iran bring added regional and international complexity, and has ostensibly tightened the embrace of Saudi Arabia and the United States. In North Yemen where the Nasserites arrived in 1962, the Saudis now see the Iranian hand trying to threaten their Kingdom. Despite the lack of evidence, Saudi Arabia and the United States have both been keen to push the spurious claim that Iran is supporting Houthi rebels on the Kingdom’s porous southern border. As the New York Times informs its readers: “(T)hey practice a quasi-Shiite form of Islam that makes them natural Iranian allies.” The sectarian claim that Zaidi Shiites, quite different from Iranian Shiites, are natural Iranian allies is one Saudi would like to see promoted. As occurred in Bahrain and across the region, sectarianism, terrorism, and the Iranian threat have been useful tools in Saudi Arabia’s counter-revolution.
Reflecting Saudi Arabian visions of Iran, the United States sees the presence of al-Qaeda everywhere. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is seen as the primary terrorist threat to US national security, despite some analysts’ claims that the group comprises no more than seven hundred militants. Since the uprising, AQAP has expanded its territory in Yemen, as US trained and equipped Yemeni forces withdrew from the south and abandoned the fight against al-Qaeda to protect the Saleh regime in the capital. Numerous commentators have stressed that the counter-terrorism centric approach of the US administration is actually exacerbating the terrorist threat.
The transformation of Yemen into a “civil state” (dawla madaniyya), as called for by the uprising, is viewed as critical to effectively counter terrorism in Yemen. The United States and the international community are not willing—or believe they are unable—to support the protesters’ demands for change due to the inevitable violent transformation of the political order that would ensue. Just as in the 1962 Republican Revolution, regional alliances once again take precedence over the support of aspirations for good governance. The logic of authoritarian-imposed stability remains the approach through which the threat posed by Yemen to international interests can be controlled, despite the challenge the uprisings have posed to this schema.
The United States endorsed the Saudi-backed Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative, and as in 1962, the UN and the broader international community followed suit. The GCC Initiative removed Ali Abdullah Saleh from the presidency after thirty-three years, but his continued presence in Yemen suggests the perpetuation of a Saudi Arabian policy of keeping the “pot bubbling.” A contemptuous one-candidate election was held and Saleh’s vice-president was “elected” the new president of Yemen. Saudi Arabia fears a strong, democratic and, united Yemen. However, although Saudi is deeply concerned about the Arab uprisings, it does not perceive the Yemeni uprising as a serious revolutionary threat.
Saudi Arabia is cognizant of the numerous militarized, fractious, and independent groups in Yemen. Ali Abdullah Saleh, in an oft-repeated cliché, referred to his method of ruling Yemen as “dancing on the heads of snakes.” Saleh was a reliable client for Saudi in keeping the Yemeni scene bubbling but not boiling over. However, just as al-Badr was abandoned by the Saudi monarchy when he outlived his usefulness in their self-preservation, so was Saleh when the protest movement coalesced around the removal of his regime and he could no longer maintain the desired “stability.” According to Yemeni sources, Saleh is now working on a memoir entitled “My story with snakes.”
The removal of Saleh by the GCC Initiative is aimed at returning Yemen to its previous state of inertia under Saleh. The Saudi monarchy’s current dilemma in the transition to a post-Saleh era is how to return Yemen to Saleh-esque stability without Saleh. Wealth and power is highly concentrated in a few individuals in Yemen and the uprisings across the region have exposed the fragility of rule based on concentrated power. The GCC plan in Yemen is a challenge to the resilience of the Yemeni protest movement, as the Saudi counter-revolutionary strategies across the region will test the resilience of the Arab uprisings.
The Yemeni protesters are conscious that in their call and aspirations for strong state institutions, they are not only up against the Saleh regime and his family and the multiple fissures in the local political scene. They also have to fight the Saudi Arabian and international community schema of “stability,” imposed by Saudi since the end of the civil war in 1970. Protesters changed the name of the central square outside Sana’a University, the epicentre of the Yemeni uprising, from Freedom Square to Change (Taghyir) Square. Freedom has largely disappeared from the revolutionary vocabulary and the language of change is everywhere. Yemenis are not going to be able to overthrow the Saudi-US strategy of “stability,” as swiftly as they toppled Saleh or as the Republicans killed the Imamate. Yemenis need to be steadfast in their push for change. Indeed, their continued presence in Change Square and willingness to fight, despite the odds, has illustrated their resilience. For the first time since 1962, the outline of a different Yemen, a changed Yemen, is visible.
This article was originally published at Jadaliyya.